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Launching Independent Work Stations during the First Weeks of School

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The first week of school sets the foundation for the entire academic year and independent work is part of that. It’s an opportunity to establish routines, build relationships, and create an environment that fosters independence for special education students. One effective strategy is implementing independent work stations, which empower students to work autonomously while developing crucial life and functional skills. In these work stations are what I call work tasks.

These are materials sometimes stored in bins, binders, or file folders. They can be as simple as task cards, worksheets, or velcro tasks too. I’ve even made them digital by assigning a table with an iPad or computer at it with things to work on such as Boom Cards. They work on all types of skills including reading, math, functional skills, life skills, and more. In this blog post, I’ll walk you through the beginning steps of launching independent work stations with special education students, ensuring a smooth and successful start to the school year.

Step 1: Assess Individual Needs

assessing students skills prior to independent work

Understanding the unique abilities and challenges of each student is paramount. This starts with getting to know your students through reading their IEPs, completing interest surveys with students and parents, and even speaking with previous teachers. I also recommend you conduct individual assessments to identify their strengths, interests, and areas that require additional support.

Consider factors such as learning styles, sensory preferences, and attention spans. This information will guide you in tailoring the work stations to meet their diverse needs effectively for each student. Remember the work that each student gets must be individualized.

The way I used to tackle this in my classroom is the first week or two of school I would have my students and my paraprofessionals with me in a whole group lesson. I would just bring the bins of work tasks or binders to the table with my students and staff and we would pass around tasks, seeing if students could complete them on their own. My paraprofessionals and I would walk around the room with a clipboard and a data sheet to keep track of the name or type of task, and the level of independence the student had with that task. So, I then could move confidently and assign tasks to students they could do which would limit behaviors and disruptions once we got going with our stations in full force.

Here’s the datasheet we use:

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Each student needs to have something motivating to work for after the completion of the tasks.

Step 2: Define Clear Objectives for Independent Work

Establish clear learning objectives for each work station and the tasks that are inside it. Align these objectives with the curriculum and individual goals for your special education students. Ensure that the tasks are age-appropriate, engaging, and provide opportunities for skill development. This includes areas such as reading, math, communication, and social skills. By setting specific goals, you lay the foundation for meaningful and purposeful independent work.

And remember, they must be something that your student can do independently on their own. This means without support or prompting to get the task done. So often these tasks are skills the student has already mastered. Initially, it’s imperative that they are as easy as possible for students to complete. Students need to get the process of completing the work down. I have more about paraprofessional run stations with students that you can read about here. That’s where we work on building new skills and IEP goals.

Step 3: Design the Work Stations

independent work student at desk

Now comes the exciting part – designing the work stations! Consider the following elements:

a) Organization:

Arrange each work station in a dedicated area of the classroom. Clearly label materials, supplies, and instructional aids to facilitate independent access. Ensure that the layout is conducive to focus and minimizes distractions. I liked having tables spaced out in the classroom within sight of an adult but not too close so that the student would become dependent on that adult to do the task. Also, have storage for the tasks you want students to complete. I have used 3 drawer Rubbermaid organizers, multiple-drawer rolling carts, shelves, and cabinets in most situations. Milk crates tied with zip ties can make an easy set of shelves in a pinch on the cheap to put next to a desk!

b) Visual Supports:

Incorporate visual aids, such as picture schedules, task lists, visual instructions, and first-then boards. This will provide students with clear guidance and reinforce routines. A must-have is the list of tasks that you want the students to complete. You can find a set here that I used in my classroom. Visual supports enhance understanding, promote independence, and help students transition smoothly between work stations.

c) Materials and Resources:

Select materials and resources that align with the learning objectives of each work station. If you have a life skills workstation, then have things like sorting silverware, stocking small shelves, and matching household items. Include manipulatives, worksheets, technology tools, and any other necessary resources so that students will not need your help while completing the task. Provide a variety of options to accommodate different learning styles and abilities. Many times I get asked what to use with students who are just learning to work independently or are very young. I have found that put-in tasks are the easiest type to work on at first, then you can move to matching, sorting, and more.

Need some items to get you started? Check out my shop for materials that I put in my independent work systems.

Step 4: Teach Expectations and Procedures for Independent Work

This next step is typically the part that gets skipped because it seems easy to seat a student at a table and tell them to work on things they already have mastered. But, it’s actually something we need to teach our students with a lot of detail. Explicitly teach the expectations and procedures associated with each work station. Model and demonstrate how to use the materials, complete tasks, and follow the established routines. Show students the steps of transitioning to the work station, finding a task to work on, opening the task container, completing the task and placing it in the correct area, and figuring out what to work on next.

It also means showing them what to do when they are done, and how to access their reinforcer or break items when they are done without needing you to help them. Incorporate social stories or role-playing activities to reinforce appropriate behavior and encourage independence. Remember to provide clear instructions and offer support during the initial stages of implementation. I typically do this for a week with my paraprofessionals in a whole group lesson with the students to start.

Step 5: Gradual Release of Responsibility

Gradually transition from teacher-led instruction to independent work. Begin by working closely with students at the work stations, providing guidance and support as needed. Over time, gradually decrease your involvement and encourage students to work autonomously. Monitor their progress and offer feedback to promote growth and development.

Use these for keeping data all year on student’s ability to work independently:

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Launching independent work stations in the first week of school empowers special education students to take ownership of their learning journey. By assessing individual needs, setting clear objectives, designing effective work stations, teaching expectations, and gradually fostering independence, you lay a strong foundation for their academic success and personal growth.

Remember, each student is unique, and it’s essential to adapt and modify the work stations as necessary. Flexibility, patience, and ongoing assessment will help you refine and improve your approach. By nurturing independence, you’re creating an inclusive classroom environment where every special education student can thrive and reach their full potential.